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Europe should avoid thwarting Turkey’s transformation 9 octobre 2009

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE.
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The Daily Star (Lebanon), Friday, October 09, 2009

By Gerald Knaus *

When the European Commission announced in October 2004 that Turkey had met the criteria for starting membership negotiations, it became front-page news worldwide. Turkey attracted international attention because of its geo-strategic importance, and because it is the first Muslim-majority European Union candidate.

Over the previous five years, Turkey has made spectacular progress in strengthening its democratic institutions, significantly separating the military from politics, lifting restrictions on minority rights and abolishing emergency courts. Many of these reforms could not have been imagined, let alone implemented, a few years earlier. As Ziya Onis, a professor of international relations at Koc University in Istanbul, noted, “A tide of reforms were initiated, which the powerful ‘anti-EU coalition’ in Turkey found it progressively more difficult to resist.”

The reforms extended in many directions. A new Penal Code, which was established in 2004, treats female sexuality for the first time as a matter of individual right rather than family honor. Amendments to the Turkish Constitution oblige the Turkish state to take all necessary measures to promote gender equality. Family courts were established, employment laws amended and new programs were created to tackle domestic violence and improve access to education for females. These are the most radical changes to the legal status of Turkish women in 80 years.

In hindsight, it is hard to remember just how big the normative gap had been separating Turkey and European Union member states as late as 1999. The European Commission noted in a 1999 report on Turkey: “There are serious shortcomings in terms of human rights and protection of minorities. Torture is not systematic, but it is still widespread, and freedom of expression is regularly restricted by the authorities.”

Between 1991 and 1994, thousands of claims of torture were submitted to human rights organizations, while thousands of mystery killings took place. By the spring of 1996, some 3,000 villages had been razed to the ground in southeast Anatolia as the state battled the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). National politics, to a large extent, had been hijacked by an opaque and unaccountable “deep state,” which was justified by a perceived need to fight Turkey’s enemies, particularly the PKK.

And despite the concerns about reforms slowing down, the year 2009 has seen a new series of initiatives, including a government-sponsored political opening toward Turkey’s Kurdish minority and a limitation of the powers of military courts. All of these developments raise the question: Why, in light of the success of European Union soft power, are so many European countries still voicing their concerns about Turkey joining the union?

There is no simple answer. In the spring 2006 biannual Eurobarometer polls – which produce reports on public opinion across Europe on European Union-related issues – 69 percent of those polled in Germany said they opposed Turkey joining the union. This put Germany on par with Luxembourg and second only to Austria (with 81 percent opposed). Meanwhile in France, the majority of political elites fear the size of Turkey and the impact it would have on the institutional machinery of the European Union.

Despite these skeptical countries, however, a clear majority of European Union member states support eventual Turkish accession to the union. For all the problems and the slow pace, so far nobody has tried to derail the process as such. This in itself is a remarkable indicator in and of itself, given popular resistance to Turkish accession, especially in Germany, France, Austria and Cyprus.

US President Barack Obama, in addressing the Turkish Parliament on April 6, argued, “Turkey’s greatness lies in [its] ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide – it is where they come together.” As Turkey continues to pursue its reforms, the country will continue to undermine the case of those who believe that it can never truly change.

For now, the ball remains in Turkey’s court as the government sets out to tackle a number of important issues. These include improving the social, not just the legal, status of Turkish women as well as tackling the problems facing different minorities. They also include moving toward European Union environmental standards and placing the Turkish armed forces under tighter civilian control.

It is easy to be pessimistic. However, one must look at how far Turkey has come since 1999, which gives rise to at least cautious optimism that the great story of Turkey’s “Europeanization” will continue.

* Gerald Knaus is founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) and a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of the Harvard Kennedy School.


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